The director of Sky Atlantic’s new Spanish detective drama Falcón wanted to make a ‘noir thriller shot like a documentary’. Benji Wilson gets a ringside seat during filming.

Bullfighting is a controversial subject at the best of times, but on the set of Falcón, Mammoth Screen’s new Spanish detective drama for Sky Atlantic, it is causing considerable consternation. We are about an hour’s drive south of Madrid, at the Plaza de Toros bullring in Aranjuez.

The script requires detective Javier Falcón, played by New Zealand-born actor Marton Csokas, to watch from the stands as his nephew Rafa practices as a torero. In later scenes, Rafa will fight for real.

The problem is the bull. Most times when real bullfighting is in Spain for film and TV, a bull is killed, because that bull has seen the ring and can never fight again, which in Spanish eyes renders it useless. But as producer Julia Stannard says, killing animals in the name of realistic television is not really acceptable to a British audience.

“We were very concerned as to how we would include this in the film. So we have spent a lot of money shooting with VFX and green screen. We can then shoot a real bullfight at which we will purely be observers, and intercut the footage of the bull with green screen of our actors.”

If that seems like a complicated, not to say expensive, way of crafting a scene, it is indicative of the ambition behind the show, which is Sky Atlantic’s second original drama commission after Paul Abbott’s Hit & Miss.

Falcón, initially a series of two, two-part films, is based on Robert Wilson’s bestselling Javier Falcón novels. Though we are near Madrid today, most of the filming has taken place in Seville, where the novels are set. Seville has a distinctive culture and look, and part of that is bull-fighting.

“It was expensive but as it airs on Sky Atlantic, it has got to be as spectacular as shows like those HBO is delivering,” says Stannard. “It has to knock you sideways. That’s the challenge we’re facing.”

We return ringside. In the middle of the oval, director Pete Travis (Endgame, Vantage Point, Dredd) is taking meticulous care to get Falcón’s nephew Rafa’s shadow just right.

If it seems a little pernickety, there is method here too. Shadow is a vital component of Travis’s vision for Falcón, because to him, shadow means noir. “I had a clear idea in my head that I wanted to do a noir thriller, one thatlooked like noir but was shot like a documentary. Normally, noir is very static. This has all the realism of a documentary fi lm - it’s all handheld, but it looks extraordinarily beautiful.”

How do you bring realism to what looks like a storybook setting filled with fictional characters?
“Well, for example, the camera always follows Falcón into a room. It never sits there and waits for him to come in. This is a story that unravels through his eyes. So there’s not a single scene where we see something before he sees it. That was a very conscious choice.”

Dynamic camerawork
Using a zoom lens was another deliberate tactic. “In normal life, when you see something, you usually want to lean closer and concentrate on it. A zoom lens helps you do that. So the camera’s much more dynamic; slightly restless, in a sense that it’s searching for the truth.”

Seville is the backdrop to, as well as a character in, Robert Wilson’s novels, and for Travis’s vision of noir realism, it provided the perfect setting. “One of the things about Seville is the light there is really, really extraordinary,” he says. “It’s very intense white heat but with huge dark shadows and extraordinary contrasts.”

Travis was introduced to the project with a 10-hour tour of the town from Wilson himself, who has lived nearby for more than 20 years.
“Seville’s full of dark secrets and shadows,” says Travis. “On the surface, it looks like everyone’s having a really good time. But if you see underneath, it looks like it might be quite a scary place as well.”

That trope - nice on the surface, scary underneath - underpins both the look of the Falcón films and their storyline.

In the first of the two-parters, Falcón is investigating the murder of a restaurant owner, but the story soon comes to be about him and his family. As in Raymond Chandler’s stories, the character of the detective is as much the subject as the case. Which is why the casting of Marton Csokas in the lead was so important. The producers needed a name that came with a hint of mystery.

“Our intention was to find somebody who would be enticing for a British audience,” says Stannard. “Marton’s been in a lot of feature films, from Lord Of The Rings to The Bourne Supremacy, but on British television this is a first for him. A lot of the time, he doesn’t speak. It’s about that face - somebody who you just want to know what’s going on under the surface.”

Broadcast catches up with Csokas once the sun has gone down, the bullring has closed and Aranjuez’s parched clay has begun to cool. Falcón is a man troubled by visions and insomnia; Csokas also looks exhausted, but it’s unclear whether this is method, or the result of being in every scene of a shoot that is trying to make twofilms of cinema quality in five weeks.

“Falcón doesn’t want to sleep,” he says over a glass of wine, “because he has nightmares. And somehow, strangely, the terrible things that he has to uncover free him of all that. So in a classic sense, it’s a redemptive film - facing horrible demons helps you move on. He ends this film in a better position than he began it.”

That hope is echoed by Sky Atlantic’s original drama department. “Our note throughout has been: ‘It’s a feature film, but it’s on telly,’” says Stannard. “The worst thing you can do is make something that’s safe: we really want to feel like this is something people have never seen before.”


Production company
Mammoth Screen
Commissioner Anne Mensah
Length 4 x 60 minutes: The Blind Man Of Seville, 2 x 60 minutes; The Silent And The Damned, 2 x 60 minutes
TX TBC, November, Sky Atlantic
Director Pete Travis
Writer Stephen Butchard
Executive producers Michelle Buck and Damien Timmer (Mammoth); Huw Kennair Jones (Sky Atlantic)
Producer Julia Stannard
Summary Detective drama set in Seville, based on Robert Wilson’s bestselling Javier Falcón novels.